The concept of environmental space is in one sense simple, yet potentially radical in its implications. It tells us something "we all know" - that there are limits to rate at which we can exploit the Earth's resources. And: that there are even tighter limits to the amounts we can consume in Europe, if we are to share fairly with other parts of the world.
But it is not equally simple to quantify those limits. Nor, if we do so and find that we are currently living in excess of our environmental space, will it be a simple task to design policies capable of bringing us back within it.
The debate on these issues is still at an early stage, though gaining momentum.
Introduced as an academic concept in the 1980's, the notion of environmental space was taken up by environmental NGOs in the early 1990's. The first major effort to quantify environmental space at the European level was carried out in 1994 by the Wuppertal Institute in Germany, at the instigation of Friends of the Earth (FoE) Europe. Today, some national governments, including those of the Netherlands and Denmark, are studying how the concept of environmental space may inform their policy-making.
This paper has been commissioned by the European Environment Agency with the objective of clarifying the implications of the environmental space concept for sustainable development policies, as well as for environmental reporting and assessments - two fields in which the EEA is charged with special responsibilities. Hopefully, it will also be found useful by a wider audience, including those with corresponding responsibilities at the national level in European countries.
A draft version of the paper was presented for discussion at a Roundtable on Indicators for Sustainability, arranged by the EEA in co-operation with FoE Europe in Copenhagen in March 1996. The Roundtable was attended by some 40 participants including researchers, senior government officials, politicians and NGO representatives. The author is indebted to the convenors and participants for stimulating discussions and constructive criticism.
Throughout the process of writing the paper, I have had the benefit of close co-operation with an expert group including Maria Buitenkamp and Philippe Spapens of FoE Netherlands, Joachim Spangenberg of the Wuppertal Institute, Prof. Michael Carley of the University of Edinburgh and Andrzej Kassenberg of the Institute for Sustainable Development, Warsaw. Sincere thanks are due to them and to Peter Bosch of the EEA for fruitful discussions, contributions and comments on successive draft versions of the paper. They share no responsibility for any errors or weaknesses the reader may find in the present report.
Oslo, August 1996